Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ancestral Foodways reprise

I was invited again by my talented friend Dr. Loan Dao to give a guest lecture to her Asian American studies class at U Mass Boston. I reprised my original talk back in April with some new verbiage on phở and pictures.

It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way and shootin' no blanks

I just refute what you think, a quite unusual thing

Yes it's a mutual thing 'cos it's the root of all things and we aims to be

Ancestral Foodways: My way

My name is Leilani.  I am Vietnamese American mother, childbirth educator & matrescence doula, and writer.  There’s a lot of other things I do and am but that covers the main points.  I’ll be talking to you today about my blog Real Food, Real Pho and why I write it.


I’m a second/third generation refugee. My maternal grandparents became refugees for the first time in 1954 leaving North Vietnam to settle in the Central region. My entire maternal side--grandparents, aunties, uncles--were sponsored as refugees in April 1975 by my eldest aunty who was married to a US serviceman and living in Honolulu. My mom was 8 mos pregnant with me at the time. I was born a few weeks after we arrived and we lived there for several years. My mom owned a mauna pua truck selling siau pau (pork buns), ice cream and candy; nowadays it’s what would be called a food truck and it would be trendy, but back then, it was grey market (not strictly legal) and the city eventually shut them down.

My phamily eventually resettled in San Diego in the 80s because there was not a lot of work in Hawai'i.  It's not paradise when you don't have prospects.  My mom was a single working mom.  We were on food stamps for a number of years.  This was before there were any Vietnamese grocery stores so we ate a lot of american processed food because that is what you could get with food stamps--velveeta, powdered milk, processed food stuff (which means food altered in factories which destroys nutrients, especially the “whites"--white rice, white flour, white sugar).  Even when there was fresh Vietnamese produce and ingredients to be had, american processed food became a regular part of our diet because single mom + three kids = not a lot of time to cook.  We wanted to be like other kids and eat McDonald’s, spaghetti, pizza, soda.  My mom’s cooking too was very fusion which is probably influenced by living in Hawai’i where there is a meld of culture and cuisines; we ate lettuce and greens in our spaghetti.

When I went to college, I double majored in Anthropology and Linguistics and this is when I first started cooking for myself.  I later went on to an doctoral program in Anthropology where I focused on the culture of emerging modern society in Vietnam at a time when the market was opening up from state-owned enterprise to more international capital.  As the years went by, I found myself focused more on community organizing where I lived and left academia to become a research analyst for almost a decade, serving grassroots organizations, indigenous groups all over the US, and for a low wage workers union.

For a long time, my philosophy in life was DIE for what I believe in, this was the value I inherited from my father, and it was killing me.  I burned out.  So I quit my job to be at home with my daughter and to learn how to LIVE for what I believe in.


A surprising fact is that most of the American population is malnourished and dehydrated in spite of eating so much, because of what they are eating (Standard American Diet or "SAD") is nutritionally empty and/or depletes nutrients.  I was no exception.  I was malnourished which is weird to think since I was not underweight or starving if anything I was thick, but there were signs through food cravings which are a way of one's body telling one that one is need something (example: a craving for carbs/pastries is a really a craving for shortterm energy because you don’t have enough reserves of the long term energy like healthy fat & protein), other signs were the vertical ridges in my teeth & nails, all the health issues I was experiencing, but going back to childhood and fetal development, even my tongue tie, my inherited overbite and lower teeth crowding was an indication of at least three generations of malnutrition.

This widespread phenomenon of malnutrition that comes from eating large quantities of "food" instead of malnutrition from the absence of food as in a famine or poverty, is recent in human history.  It's part of the industrialization of food production.  After centuries of extractive agricultural practices or chemical contamination, the soil is depleted of minerals and nutrients.  Food is being chemically altered if not genetically altered in factories.  Vitamins and minerals that are destroyed in the processing are being added back synthetically in the form of vitamin fortification that is not bioavailable (easy for body to assimilate) and contributes to a toxic overload for our livers along with environmental toxins (cosmetics, household products). Processed food is essentially nutritionally empty.  We’re not taught much about real nutrition.  Popular culture references calories.  Calories are meaningless; it’s the nutrients that matter and where they come from matters most.

From Dr. Price's global dental research
There’s this emerging branch of science now called epigenetics and it looks at how environment (toxins, nutrition or malnutrition) can alter the expression of your genes.  An example would be nutrition and dental formation.  Dentists now commonly say that the teeth are the windows to health; signs of systemic disease all have correlating symptoms in dental health. There was a dentist named Weston Price  at the turn of the 20th century who noticed increasing problems with cavities and bite and connected it to the rise of industrially processed food like white flour and sugar.  He travelled all over the world and documented the introduction of processed food and its impact on dental health.  In families where they ate native foods, the children had robust facial structure, straight teeth, few to no dental issues.  In families where they ate processed foods, the children had smaller jaws, overbites/underbites, cavities.  In other words, humans are evolutionarily programmed to have straight teeth that can fit into their jawbones.  No animal species could survive if they didn’t have teeth that were functional.  Dr. Price understood that nutrition was critical in bone formation and to optimal health.  He developed a philosophy that can be paraphrased as “eating what your ancestors ate”.  Nowadays, we have the understanding to say the malnutrition from processed foods affected the epigenetic expression of dental formation and it degenerates with each successive generation.

Stress and psychological trauma is also something that can be inherited behaviorally and epigenetically.  Stress affects the sympathetic system--the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, pituitary gland--which generates the fight, flight or freeze response.  Stress also changes epigenetic expression and is passed on to the next generation in gene expression as well as behavior.  Scientists have done research on the children of survivors of Nazi death camps on behavioral inheritance of PTSD and more recently on the epigenetics of mice exposed to stress; stress/trauma affects the genes that are inherited by the next generation.  Your parents' experiences and reactions to stress predisposes your own sympathetic system and depletes or inhibits your body’s absorption of nutrients.  When you are stressed, your body is in survival mode, digestion goes to the back burner.  So my family history means that I have 150 years (+/-) of colonization and war trauma coded in my DNA.  It’s no surprise that my adrenals (adrenal glands make the master hormones that we need to survive) were worn out; so at my lowest, even though driving in traffic typically makes me anxious, I would experience near accidents and not feel anything.  This wasn’t a zen response.  I could feel a click like an ignition but nothing turned on.  My fight, flight or freeze reaction was not happening.  I didn’t get the burst of adrenaline to help me react to a situation and keep myself safe because my adrenals were not functioning. (This is actually becoming very common, if undiagnosed, in US society.)


So I burned out.  I had developed systemic, auto-immune issues, that’s when your body becomes so stressed out it attacks itself--for example, allergies, skin issues, diabetes, in extreme cases, cancer.  My adrenals just about shut down,  and I was pretty close to being bedridden.  I had barely out enough energy to drag myself out of bed and sludge through my day.  You ever watch Shaun of the Dead?  It was the first zombie romantic comedy.  The opening montage (minus the peppy music)?  The working dead.  That's what it felt like.  Life was flat.  All the ailments I had were beyond the scope of conventional Western medicine to heal; Western medicine is about  suppressing the symptoms, not getting to the root causes (though Functional or Integrative Medicine is the exception, I didn't have access to Functional MDs with my insurance).  I had to heal myself.  And I did.  A huge part of that healing process is FOOD.  Food is my medicine. (I believe medicine is anything that heals your body, mind, and spirit/soul; this can be music, talk story, wisdom, plants, love, spiritual/ancestral connection, and food among others.)

I considered myself a healthy eater up to that point.  We ate mostly homemade cooking with a lot of white rice, fresh vegetables and meat at every meal, some processed food everyday; processed food is anything that did not recently come from the earth or an animal.  We didn’t eat too differently from the way we were raised, lots of stir-fries.  But the lifetime of stress, inherited stress from war/refugee trauma in prior generations, coffee/sugar dependence, and processed foods (donuts!) had depleted my body, weakened my organs & systems.

Something had to change and that something was ME.  No one else could tell me how/why.  I was my own personal health investigator.  Over the last 5 years, I tried a lot of holistic alternative medicine like naturopath, chiropractor, muscle testing, acupuncture, osteopath, yoga, breathwork & meditation, read a lot of articles and blogs, reset my circadian rhythm, and those all contributed, but food and more specifically nutrition is where I experienced the most changes.

Instead of popping a multi-vitamin (which I had “allergic” rash reactions to but were really my liver being overloaded with toxins and passing into the blood stream triggering an histamine immune reaction), I had to replenish my nutrients from eating whole, real foods--food that recently came from the earth and from animals, not from a factory or a lab.

HEALED and stronger than ever!
12 Mile hike in Desolation Wilderness
June 2014
I started off eliminating wheat and dairy, and my seasonal allergies went away.  I went organic (no pesticides/poisons used in the food production and no genetically modified organisms/GMOs) and my skin, digestion, and hormones improved.  I gave up alcohol, coffee and caffeine (oh this was hard, no more cà phê sữa đá!) and the migraines and vertigo stopped.  I added healthy fats and my brain function and memory came back.  I eliminated sugar and reduced grains, added more veggies, green smoothies, and my blood sugar stabilized and I lost a little weight and girth (really it's volume from inflammation more than weight).  I drank more water spiked with sea salt (my adrenals need the minerals & electrolytes), and my skin improved and I could sleep at night without waking up from hormonal surges feeling hot, dry & hungry.  I eliminated additives like MSG or preservatives that are neuro-toxic and my mood stabilized, my stress/anxiety levels normalized, the agitation & anger/irritability reduced and sleeping regularized.  I added homemade fermented foods dense with natural probiotics like sauerkraut, pickled mustard greens, and the ridges in my nails have smoothed out.  I stopped eating processed foods, I even gave up supposedly healthy organic processed foods, the organic blue tortilla chips, the organic gluten-free breads because they were just organic empty calories; I gave up most restaurant food because of the sugar and additives.  There’s the saying you are what you eat.  When I eat processed foods, conventionally grown meat, I get sick.

Overall, my body was less inflammed which I can quantify by looking at my white blood count which used to be through the roof and are now in the low end of normal.  Along with the loving support of my family, yoga and deep breathing (which not only changes your brainwaves, but also affects epigenetic expression!), my creativity is re-emerging, and I feel whole again.


When I eliminated wheat and dairy, I thought well, I’ll keep it easy and cook Vietnamese/Asian food following the food philosophy of "Eat what your ancestors ate" because my ancestors were not eating macaroni & cheese from a box.  And you think of Asian food and you think of rice, not wheat.  And then as I started reading the labels, I realized how much processing goes into modern Vietnamese food here in the US--not just MSG, but MSG in all its iterations (hydrolyzed wheat protein, "natural flavor", soy protein, etc), wheat derivatives, refined sugar, preservatives (not just banned formaldehyde, but FDA approved preservatives), food coloring.  This is not how my ancestors ate.  So I had to find ingredients that didn’t contain additives, wheat, dairy, refined sugar, minimally processed.  I had to decolonize my diet.

I had to learn how to truly make food from scratch using ancestral foodways that maximize nutrition instead of shortcuts that comes from modern living always being in a hurry and on the go, that can be counter-nutritive.  I couldn’t find a single source for recipes/blogs that made Vietnamese food using whole ingredients and ancestral foodways.  Some ancestral foodways I saw my grandparents practice, other things I pieced together from blogs about homesteading or whole foods cooking.  So that’s when I started blogging, to reclaim and sometimes remake ancestral food ways.  


I grew up eating my bà ngoại|maternal grandmother's Northern-style phở for brunch almost every Sunday.  She would wake up as is customary, before the crack of dawn, and begin to simmer those bones for at least 5 hours.  I had my first restaurant-made (Southern-style) phở when I was in my early 20s and was appalled. Phở became fast food. Sweetened with MSG, overly sharp with fish sauce, and served with the ubiquitous hoison and sriracha.  In my hoity-toity opinion, hoison and sriracha mask the flavor of inferior broth--bones not simmered long enough to extract the minerals and beef essence.  I'm not sure I even finished that first restaurant bowl.

In American phở restaurants, it has become the norm to be served a supersized portion and to abandon the dredges of watered down soupy MSG, muddied by hoison/sriracha, wilted herbs, and thickened by noodle detritus. In our Phamily, the custom was to serve a Viet-sized portion, and drink it to the last drop. ông ngoại was fond of telling me stories how they survived the brutalities of French colonization and the atrocities of Japanese occupation and the indignities of American intervention. ông ngoại would give me the body counts of how many millions died under each regime. So I always licked my bowl clean.

Over the years, I've had to take my soul food familiars and bring them back to the basics.  In a way, I've decolonized my diet--I've eliminated the wheat and dairy of French influence, and the industrially processed, chemically laden ingredients and products of Japanese & American influence.  I use organic, grass-fed beef bones, organic spices (when I can source them), dried rice noodles (I've yet to source or make brown rice noodles), herbs from my garden, mineral-rich grey sea salt, and real fish sauce.  The result is deeply satisfying, nutrient-dense, nourishing.  It is not the sweet phở that most phở fans accustomed to the substandard fare served up in phở restaurants across the US will be used to. It is not my bà ngoại's phở because there is no spice like nostalgia, and alas she took her recipe when she crossed over (and to be real, she loved her some MSG).  This is my Phở. Phở real.

I am not a professionally trained chef.  Like some home cooks, I came to cooking as a necessity when I started living on my own in college.  I learned by calling my mom on the phone, reading cookbooks, recipes and blogs, through tips from friends and strangers, learned through making mistakes.  I cook for my family, I cook for me, for my community of friends.  For me, it started with phở which I grew up eating at family gatherings every Sunday. But I've experimented with all kinds of cuisines from American to Moroccan to Irish.  I've rendered lard, made corned beef by fermenting organic grass-fed beef over a week; I've made pozole by growing, harvesting and nixtamalizing maize (which is a process of alkalizing the kernels to release the nutrients similar to hominy) and stewing an entire hog's head (which is a very gnarly experience.  The snout!  The teeth! The eyeballs!).  Somethings I've made better than others.  A lot of things I've botched (brown rice bánh xèo hash, but I haven’t given up yet!).  But more than expertise I’ve found what matters is the ingredients.  Real food, sustainably grown, tastes better and is more nourishing.  It can be costly, but there are frugal strategies, like growing your own vegetables, joining buying coops and buying straight from the farmer (called Community Supported Agriculture).  Organic, grass-feed beef which can cost up to $25/lb at the store, costs $5/lb buying a sustainably-raised whole steer from a local farmer, and then paying the butcher.  It's more expensive than conventionally raised cows, but I don't get boils from the antibiotics and growth hormones that they feed them (not to mention the stress hormones from their living conditions and manner of slaughter).  It’s a damn sight cheaper than the thousands of dollars I was spending on health care, supplements, and short term fixes.


My Ong Ba Ngoai

The soul of my cooking is a love of food and family.  For me, cooking Vietnamese food is the way I remember my grandparents who were self-sufficient, subsistence farmers before the wars and who transplanted here to the US, had a subsistence garden no matter where they lived in the hood and carried on foodways and traditions of cooking from their upbringing.  Cooking is how I honor their legacy, and make it meaningful and present for my daughter.  There is a story in each meal, a rich history in the making of it, and quality in the eating of it.  Taking the time to make something from scratch using ancestral food ways infuses the food with more flavor, more nutrients, more tradition, and more love.

Vietnamese culture is some 4000 years old give or take.  The cuisine is inflected with the rich cultural and historical influences from several millenia of globalization.  The native palate (fish sauce, hot/sour/salty/sweet),  coconuts from Melanesia/Polynesia from antiquity, over two millenia of influence from countries of that are now called India & China, from the conquest and absorption of the Khmer and Champa kingdoms 400 years ago, Portuguese missionizing 16th c-18th c, and then, the less than 150 years of influence from French colonization, a blip of less than 2 decades of American war, more recently aspirations for korean modernity.

Food is constantly evolving.  I don’t claim to cook authentic as it was made 100 years ago by my great grandmother. There were adapted foodways that my grandparents practiced that I eschew like food coloring, karo corn syrup or white rice flour in favor of more nutritious practices.  The results are not like we are now used to eating; the appearance, colors, taste, texture are wildly different.  And, I live here in the US, this is my context.  I have a food processor and I use it.  I eat kale with everything even my phở.  I have a family to feed and I don’t always have all day to cook so I do make shortcuts, but I try not to compromise on nutrition.  It’s been a learning process for me to challenge myself where I feel daunted (Bánh Chưng! hog’s head!) and to reinvent or find new ways.  So this blog is my take on ancestral food ways and LIVING for what I believe in.

My loves making sprouted brown rice sushi with smoked salmon and trout roe.
It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way
Ain't shootin' no blanks
I just refute what you think
A quite unusual thing, Yes it's a mutual thing
Cos it's the root of all things, and we end.

Healthier Eating Resources

Q & A from the class (with some additional thoughtful thoughts)

  • How do you source additive-free Vietnamese ingredients?
Partially answered above and I do a lot of label reading. I make choices that sometimes are not as fresh/more processed, but with less additives, like dried rice noodles versus "fresh" noodles that have preservatives & wheat starch. Other things I make from scratch or do substitutions.
  • How can this be affordable and time manageable for urban areas, students or working professionals?
There are different budget strategies including growing your own container garden, farmer's markets, buying in bulk, buying coops (that is, pooling your resources and leveraging your buying power with friends), local chapters of groups like Holistic Moms Network & Weston A Price Foundation that do buying coops. For example, I get a group of friends, family and community to pool together to buy Red Boat fish sauce in bulk (typically 10 cases/120 bottles) to get a wholesale price (I contacted the owner personally and asked for this deal; small, local owners are more willing to negotiate deals with people in the community). I don't buy a whole hog by myself; I get my family, friends and community to go in with me to do shares of a quarter hog; whole hogs have a lower price point than quarter hogs. Then I drive 2 hours out of town to pick it up from the farmer's butcher who will typically cut it down into standard cuts & family sized portions. Typically I have a coop fee that covers the cost of my gas, but not my time. 
This is more or less how grocery coops got their start. A lot of college towns have grocery coops (like Isla Vista Food Coop in Santa Barbara, CA) that were started by students pooling their collective buying power to buy in bulk and pass on the savings to members. Costco is the corporate version of this. ( has helpful tips about starting coops/shared resources/collaborative communities. Boston has, Dorchester's; also search on
There are also CSAs (which are like a subscription to a specific farmer) that deliver mixed produce boxes to your door or drop near you (find a CSA near you). Here in California at least, there are emerging online CSA "markets" that act as the middlemen between consumer and multiple farmers and have a wider selection of produce & meat products and dairy products than a typical CSA (Heritage Foods USA is an example of a national one). You buy online and it is delivered to you. BTW if you don't have something like a CSA or food coop near you, I hope some of you are inspired to start your own business!
Asian markets have Asian produce that is not certified organic (an expensive process), but tend to have been farmed without pesticides (which are expensive and Asian farmers operate on low margins); Asian market produce tends to be better quality and value than American supermarkets. Rinsing produce with salt and water or with vinegar and water is another way to slough off any preservative or chemical residues.
The classic student stereotype is living off ramen. It's not that hard to make your own ramen nor is it that expensive. On the weekend, get a pig trotter or pork soup bones (if it's conventionally grown/non-organic then soak it in lemon juice & water overnight) and some pork shoulder/butt (tends to be cheapest cut) and make a basic pork broth. You can add organic miso (fermented means lots of natural probiotics) if you like instead of soy sauce at the very end. The spices and ingredients can vary as you like. The broth & meat can then be frozen in jars or freezer bags in individual sized portions. Batch wash the Asian vegetables and store in a zip bag with a paper towel (to absorb any moisture). Then throughout the week, anytime you want ramen, reheat and add any frozen seafood (shrimp!), vegetables and noodles (I tend to go with rice noodles or Korean/Japanese sweet potato noodles or 100% buckwheat soba noodles though recently I've tried brown rice & quinoa spaghetti and it's not too bad.) It's ramen; it's still sorta "instant-ish" (will take less than 15 min to reheat & make noodles) and you made it yourself without additives (though check that the frozen shrimp does not have preservatives)! Feed your belly and your soul! I ate a lot of spaghetti in college. Making your own sauce is super easy and tasty. Use organic fresh or organic canned tomatoes. Simmer in a pot with olive oil, your choice of spices (typically garlic, onion, oregano, basil, thyme, sea salt & pepper), a spoonful of unrefined sugar (coconut palm, honey, etc), until its tender. Then mash it up or not. Add meat or not. Eat it over noodles. Freeze it in portion sizes.
A lot of my recipes include time saving tips because I am still a busy, small business owner, a writer, and a mom and I don't cook all day (this ain't the '50s, yo!). Some things like phở are time consuming; while there are time saving strategies like using a pressure cooker or slow cooker, it still takes a lot of time. I've been cooking phở for 10 years now even as a full-time working professional and without a pressure cooker; I did it on the weekends. I think of phở as a sacred ritual like Thanksgiving; it's an event to prepare it for my family & friends. It's not an everyday food. That said, you can freeze the broth and meat and have it anytime you want. The beauty of dried rice noodles is that they keep forever on the shelf! And if you don't have the herbs on hand, well I've been known to go without or make weird substitutions.
When it comes to weekday meals, the freezer is your friend. (Sprouted) rice, sauces, cooked meats, many meals  can be made in advance and then frozen in portion sizes. (Just don't freeze raw/cooked eggs or cooked fish because they taste awful defrosted.) Frozen shrimp makes for easy meals (like tôm kho or tôm rim | caramelized shrimp). I know dorm rooms may have no or small freezers but you can sometimes find mini chest freezers used on craigslist that are small enough for a dorm room and give you some valuable freezer real estate. It's a good investment if you are committed to eating well. I got a regular size upright freezer for $50 off CL. I don't actually have a microwave so we reheat stuff in the toaster oven or in a steamer pot.
Gi Cun | Spring rolls are actually not that hard or time consuming to make during the weekdays. Regular rice vermicelli takes less than 10 minutes to cook. When I'm in a hurry, I like to use Bánh Hỏi Tươi which is only soaked in hot water for a minute or two. I use whatever meat we have handy, usually leftovers and pre-washed salad mix. If we had a roast for dinner (it doesn't matter what cuisine), it's in the gi cun the next day. I've had bulgogi and lao sausages & kimchi in my gi cun.
So I guess I'm saying meal planning or stocking your pantry are helpful strategies for busy people. 

  •  What about cuisine from colonizer countries like Japan or Frenchified Vietnamese food like the local bánh mì food truck?
I still eat Japanese food though not at the restaurants so much because of MSG/additives and wheat. We made sushi with sprouted brown rice a few weeks back (see the pix above of my daughter & husband) and that is one of my planned recipe posts. One of the great aspects of living in the urban US is the exposure to cuisines from all over the world. It's not the food that is inherently politically problematic, it's the history and the stripping of cultural context. I just learned this great saying from Khmer Girls in Action "Know History, Know Self. No History, No Self." We can carry that and still eat international cuisines; it adds context and depth to what we are eating.
I get into the Francophilia in certain Vietnamese food circles a little bit here in this post Real Food, Real Pho. With any history of domination, there is a manufactured belief that the colonizer country is culturally and socially superior. The intelligentsia trained under the dominant regime internalize this dynamic and pass it on in through public education and popular culture (colonized minds! see Franz Fanon for more on this!!!). Here in the US, one very influential NY Times food critic, who went to VN once during the war, speculated in the 80s that maybe, just maybe pho was related to the French pot-au-feu; and folks have been repeating this bit of truthiness AS IF it was the truth ever since. Some Viet-American chefs use presumed French-iness to elevate Vietnamese cuisine as a high culture cuisine. I personally believe Viet cuisine can stand on its own without this because the valuation of what is high or low culture is meaningless.
The next piece of this is the appropriation and marketing of Viet food by and for white people while being stripped of meaningful historical and cultural context (hello, Taco Bell's Bánh Mì fast food chain!). 
Big picture: food appropriation with this skewed power dynamic has been going on for at least 522 years. Columbus landed in the New World to find spices and ended up stealing seeds and some native people too (aka "the Columbian Exchange" and the beginnings of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade). From the New World came new foods to the the Old World (Europe, Asia & Africa) like maize/corn, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, chile peppers, chocolate. While the Old World brought bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, coffee, oranges to the New World in the form of exploitative plantations. It's hard to imagine what any modern cuisine would have looked like without the Columbian Exchange.
I talk a little more about some real life consequences of the appropriation of food and the stripping of their native foodways in my post about chè bắp hột ngăm vôi | Nixtamal & tapioca pudding. Here's an excerpt: 
While superfoods are great at introducing new foods to our omnivorous diets, they come with the serious problem of being stripped of their cultural foodways & context.  When corn was globalized during the colonization era (aka "Enlightenment"), the cultural foodways of nixtamalization--storing/cooking it with ash or slaked lime/calcium carbonate to unlock its nutritional value--were not brought with it, which means that untreated corn is largely indigestible. Hence when you eat whole corn kernels, the kernel is visible almost whole as the end product of digestion to put it politely (for the impolite, this means corn poop).  
Nixtamalization. . . The alkaline steeping and wet milling of corn for table use remain distinctly American practices. Although corn has spread across the globe, the preparation of nixtamal and hominy has stayed in the Americas.  "Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate," by Anthony Boutard
When maize was introduced as a new crop staple in Africa and Europe 500 years ago supplanting native grains and tubers, the eating of it caused widespread pellagra.  While we'd think in this day and age, we'd have figured out that corn needs to be nixtamalized to be a nutritious staple grain, even still there is a "disease" called kwashiokor in South Africa which only afflicts children who have weaned and eat mostly corn-based food and low protein.  It still befuddles me that the practice of alkalizing maize to make it digestible and nutritious has not been exported to countries where corn has become a staple and thereby prevent widespread famine and nutritional deficiency rather than band aid solutions like niacin fortification after the fact. 
Little/local picture: For those of us here in the US where our cuisine is being coopted/appropriated, the consequences are not as fatal by any means. It does mean that we as a minority people are simultaneously exoticized/fictionalized and made invisible/seperated/excluded from our public cultural legacy which is a form of structural violence. In the best case scenario, the community can voice its displeasure (leverage!) and at least with the Taco Bell Bánh Mì chain get them to be a little more sensitive to the community and remove the red star branding (duh!). In the other scenario, is boycotting or pressuring local small business owners (neither of whom are Vietnamese, but they know of Vietnamese people) going to enlighten them or the public or get them to cease their operation? Not as likely. (Though never underestimate the power of Yelp reviews.) As Loan said, they are not marketing to Vietnamese people but to people who *want* Vietnamese Lite grub. 
So this is why we need independent institutions of our own. We can and should tell our own stories and make our own food! The question then becomes who is your base/market/audience? For whom are you cooking? There's nothing inherently unethical about choosing to market to the mainstream rather than stay in an "ethnic enclave", but it's about making a conscious choice and a non-exclusionary one; also, not painting yourself in a corner of only making "authentic" cuisine which is a fictional notion. There is nothing inherently immoral or unethical about fusion food as long as we are transparent and conscious about our choices. After all, food is culture and is therefore dynamic and syncretic and has always been changing based on local context and historical events. The classic example is how Chinese diaspora food has spread all over the world and become very regionalized. Chinese food from Singapore is similar and yet different to Chinese food in the US.
Again, I hope some of you are inspired to start your own food business!
  •  Isn't wheat- and dairy-free food boring or plain?
Not necessarily. We're acculturated here in the US to eat wheat and dairy and it's hard to overcome that programming, but there is world of food out there that tastes flavorful without it. Really good advice I got from my friend Dana Tran who is a wholistic health coach is that you have to focus on what you *can* eat (the positives), not on what you can't eat. And there's the spices used in cooking which imbues it with flavor. And if you think about it, when you are visiting VN, most of the food *is* wheat and dairy free and not processed. It's really here in the US that wheat derivatives are so ubiquitous.
The other thing is bio-individuality. Every individual has a different constitution and biochemical reaction to certain foods. I eat this way because I feel better. For me, given my personal history some of which I got into and other bits I haven't, I have learned what works for me and what doesn't, like MSG creates a metabolic reaction in me--both digestive and hormonal. For other folks like my husband, MSG is not going to make them react this way. (Though I have to say that I am not giving MSG a free pass. It is a neurotoxin and it so saturated in all American processed food that eventually a person will get overloaded especially as they age. If you eat a lot of processed food, your body will pay the price eventually and it may not be MSG-sensitivity but other neurological events or chronic disease (and it's not just the MSG but other additives and GMOs). This biochemist makes the correlation between decades of medical research around glutamates/MSG and neuro-behavioral disorders and degenerative issues like schizophrenia, autism, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. See her TEDx talks on youtube.) 
I don't believe people should only eat what their ethnic cuisine is. Not everyone has to eat the way I eat with the same dietary restrictions (no wheat, dairy, soy, sugar, corn or additives). I didn't make the choices to exclude food categories based on whim or trends, but on how my body feels and reacts to food. I eat what makes me feel good and avoid what makes me feel ill.
So each person has to figure out what works for them, and that changes all the time too as you age and enter new life stages. Now that I'm pregnant and my protein needs have increased to 40-50% of what I used to eat, I find I cannot meet my needs just through meat, seafood and eggs (legumes/plat-fodo sources of protein have never done it for me and I did try). I've started to incorporate goat milk cheese. Miraculously, during pregnancy, I am not lactose-intolerant and more importantly I am not reacting to the milk protein (casein) in goat milk products which is the hallmark or a true milk allergy or intolerance. Goat milk casein is more similar to human milk casein and typically easier to digest. (I still am testing as reacting to the casein proteins in cow milk, raw cow milk, and sheep milk though). I've also had to increase my sprouted brown rice intake; whereas I used to have rice once a day at most, I now have to eat it 2-3 times a day.
I will say speaking from the middle ages (I'll be 40 next year) that regardless of whether you eat wheat or dairy (and Weston Price Foundation advocates only organic, sprouted wheat and raw/unpasteurized dairy), you should absolutely eat whole, real foods (organic/pesticide-free as much as possible) that have recently come from the earth or an animal. There are so many chronic diseases associated with refined/processed food--diabetes, cancer, dementia, obesity, among many, many others--and while those things may seem a little distant in your vital 20s, theses diseases are occurring far more frequently and at far younger ages in the American population. We are in an era where the average life expectancy in the US is actually decreasing and the quality of life as an elder is not optimal. You are what you eat and that effect is cumulative. It's never too late to make a change for better nutrition.

GMOs, Agent Orange, and Viet Nam
Here is that issue I mentioned. I incorrectly stated that this affected rice; it is actually maize/corn, VN's 2nd major crop that is at issue. I should mention too that corn in VN has historically been "native corn" or heirloom corn that was originally imported in the 15-16th centuries. This will mark a shift to the yellow sweet corn that we are so used to seeing in US supermarkets.
And yes, I will check out Blue Scholars!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'd love to hear from you! How did yours turn out? Comment below or email me realfoodrealpho @